In “The Flag House,” our heroes finally approach the evil that’s been hiding in plain sight, and each time they must choose how to prioritize their devotion either to the American flag or to a more personal desire to get their house in order. In the first of two literal interpretations of the episode’s title, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) tracks the Watch-Cap-Wearing Man (C.J. Wilson) to a suburban home, while Max (Maury Sterling), undercover in the belly of a false-flag operation, makes the connection between Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber). And then there’s President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) and Dar, who meet in a metaphorical flag house, a stand-in for the White House to which Keane has been elected by 60 million voters (“Who the hell voted for you?” she brusquely asks of him), but also for the shadow constituency that opposes her (“Don’t go to war with your own national security establishment,” he says, smugly).
The scenes with Quinn and Max are merely setting things up for future episodes, in effect gathering information that can be turned into action. Quinn uses his old prostitute buddy, Clarice (Mickey O’Hagan), to secretly bring Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) to him, while Max unsmoothly sends a video clip of O’Keefe’s operation to Carrie’s computer, a message that ends up in the hands of a very motivated Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). In the case of the steely showdown between Dar and Keane, both think they have all the leverage they need, which allows them to cut past the tactical tact, so to speak, of their previous meetings. “This is your idea of advice?” Keane asks, pointing out Dar’s barely disguised threats with regard to his anti-Iran cabinet proposals. “Does it really matter what we call it?” he responds. Both believe their actions are following the holier-than-thou mandate of keeping America safe, and this keeps the playing field between the two equal, their body language expressing the full weight of a gladiatorial match waged with words. “This moment, right now,” she whispers to Dar after clenchingly lifting herself out of her chair, “is when I decided to put your ass in jail.” Dar bows slightly, acknowledging the situation, and exits: “Good day.”
Satisfying as Keane’s declaration of war might be, the bigger triumph of “The Flag House” is in the way it continues to observe the fallout of such large political actions, to show how the system victimizes us all. Quinn, in particular, has often been reduced to a punching bag, a walking reminder of the ravages of war, a man wounded not only by the cruelty of America’s enemies, but by the necessary actions of his friends. In this episode, Homeland finally manages to make that connection more concrete, as it reveals that Astrid’s murderer and Carrie’s stalker is a literal echo of Quinn.
The trace on Dar’s phone call only leads Quinn as far as a suburban diner, but it’s a place that’s familiar to him. He happily recognizes one of the waitresses (Erin Darke), but uncomfortably bails on their conversation when she starts treating him more sympathetically on account of his physical condition. It’s not random luck that he stumbles upon the Watch-Cap-Wearing Man’s safe house; Quinn knows exactly where the spare key is hidden and remembers the code to disarm the security system, because—as seen in a rare flashback for the series—it’s the same house in which he once worked with now-General McClendon (Robert Knepper). The man that Quinn has been tracking is the sort of weapon that Quinn once was, which makes Quinn’s arc not a simple revenge narrative, but a larger meditation on what becomes of the broken, human tools of war once they’re no longer of use.
Homeland less successfully makes this point throughout Saul’s scenes. Previous episodes have casually reminded viewers how out of the loop Saul is by comparing him to Israeli ambassador to Germany Etai Luskin, Viktor of the S.V.R., and even fresh blood like the C.I.A.’s Nate Joseph. Saul’s instincts are still sharp, watching for every potential tail as he retrieves his “go bag” of falsified passports and cash from a shadowy cutout (Dov Tiefenbach) in the diamond district. But instead of allowing Saul to flee from his career-ending mistakes, “The Flag House” too quickly attempts to reverse course, using Mira (Sarita Choudhury), the woman Saul was married to for 27 years, as a physical reminder that you have to fight for the things you love.
In the symbolic language of the episode, this is effective, with a memory of the “house” reminding Saul of his duty to the “flag,” but the execution is horribly contrived. It transforms Mira into a cheerleader, the sort of person who (like the similarly misused Astrid) drops her entire life and follows a ridiculous bit of paper-chasing spycraft just to provide a man she hasn’t seen in over two years with a new purpose. Such narrative shortcuts provide immediate rewards in the delighted look on Saul’s face when he stumbles upon one of Carrie’s push-pin-and-string conspiracy diagrams, but they don’t bode well for the long-term integrity of the show.
Unsurprisingly, given how much Carrie serves as Homeland’s unofficial heart, the most effective demonstration of how the system victimizes those who refuse to play by the rules revolves around her continued attempts to regain custody of her daughter. The episode sticks her in the middle of Dar and Keane’s power play, with Carrie inferring from Dar’s cheerfully malicious agent at Children’s Protective Services, Christine Lonas (Marin Hinkle), that should she testify against Dar in her meeting with the solicitor general, George Pallis (David Thornton), she’ll be denied a supervised visit with Franny (Claire and McKenna Keane). The scene dramatically focuses on the agony of her choice, with a zoom in on Carrie and the legalese slowly drowned out on the soundtrack as she’s being sworn in until there’s nothing left but the silent conflict that constantly echoes throughout Carrie’s skull. She dashes out of the room with a feeble apology, and when Keane later shows up to demand her help, Carrie points out the obvious: “Don’t show up here with a platoon of men and tell me you’re not trying to strong-arm me too.”
Carrie has spent her whole life as an agent, an advocate, or advisor, and each time her successes have been marred by disaster: preventing Brody’s attack but losing him in the process; saving Sekou Bah only to find herself a pawn in a plot to murder him. Now, despite her corkboard of evidence and conspiracy theories in the room upstairs, she can only stare down the president-elect and announce that her priorities have shifted. She loves her country, but at long last, triggered perhaps by the aftermath of the hostage crisis in “Casus Belli,” she chooses to love her daughter more. The symbolism of Carrie’s parting shot couldn’t be any clearer: She leaves Keane (the flag) alone in her brownstone (the house) so that she can tend to her daughter (her heart).
Ironically, it may once again be Dar’s overreach that jeopardizes his victory. When he unleashes O’Keefe’s “weaponized information” (the attack ad shown at the end of “Alt.Truth”), he isn’t just going for Keane, but for the legacy of her dead son. Carrie has only recently come to prioritize motherhood, but Keane’s been fighting to honor her son’s memory ever since she failed to protect his life, and the red-eyed, sleepless, wild look she gives her chief of staff, Rob (Hill Harper), is one of Homeland’s rawest emotional moments to date. The confidence and poise she exuded when confronting Dar is gone, and for now she must make the same agonizing decision that Carrie did: whether to prioritize her impersonal duties to the American flag or to address the intimate needs of her own house.
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